Ion Hazzikostas – Interview Overview

In late October, Preach took to the skies in a nearly 20 hour journey that would eventually take him to Irvine, California. The result of months of discussion and planning, he was there to take a deeper look at a game he had played for over 15 years, and the company behind it. With PG Team member Nupss flying in as cameraman and audio wizard, they were ready to meet with several members of the Warcraft and Blizzard Entertainment team to put together an (almost) Access all areas look at Blizzard and WoW. To look at what went wrong, what changed, and what the future holds.

In this article we’re going over some of the main points from our interview with Game Director, Ion Hazzikostas.

A Game for Every Player

One of the most discussed topics between Mike and Ion was on the sheer variety of players who call Azeroth home. Some like to collect pets and mounts and might never step foot into a raid or a dungeon, others love pushing their limits in Mythic plus, and others love the thrill of PvP arenas and battlegrounds. It is one of the unique challenges of making an MMO, and what makes designing for WoW challenging, admits Ion.

“They are all WoW players, and the world is richer because it has them all in it”

 “You could take a dozen people, all of who could say WoW is their primary game, have them all describe what they do in the game, and it sounds like they’re talking about twelve different games”

The way that the team sees it, there is no vast majority. It is a collection of many minorities, each of whom have different and sometimes competing interests. Rewards are an example Ion gave to highlight this point: some people want  to do a thing and it be more rewarding, and others who don’t enjoy that content would then feel forced to do it if there was better rewards, so they don’t want that content to be rewarding at all.

One of the many groups that call WoW home are the solo players, and Ion thinks they found a comfortable home in WoW. Ion explains that you could solo to max level in WoW where you couldn’t in Everquest or Final Fantasy 11. For them the game is almost meditative, they hop on after work to explore, get some cosmetics and do some achievements. They are in contrast to those players who  push difficult content with groups, but Ion is careful to stress the importance of both of those types of players:

Mandatory meant Meaningful

Something that pushed some of those many groups of players away, was the feeling of having a laundry list of chores to do in game, of content that you had to make sure you did daily or weekly. 

 It seems the team have started to learn those lessons as well as the frustration of the meaningful choice behind covenants. On covenants, Ion explained that there was some novelty in the players of different covenants playing through their own stories and experiences, but by 9.1 all the covenants were aligned and working together. Players weren’t experiencing these different stories any more, all that they were left with was the restriction of being in different covenants.

 They were chasing the idea of a meaningful choice, admits Ion. An internal debate at that time, was how much the game had lost by removing friction, by making things swappable and convenient. Was there a depth to those decisions that had been lost?

Aside from the meaningful choice came the mandatory grind. The feeling that if you didn’t complete your chores you were falling behind. Torghast was a victim of this too, being forced to overstay its welcome because you had to keep doing it. Another concept that fed into this mandatory loop were the borrowed power systems, with Ion explaining that item level is a simple universal reward that is only as valuable as the other pieces you had access to, whereas things like artifact power were additive so you had to keep working on them, feeding into the mandatory cycle.

The Modular System and Era of the Evergreen

Borrowed power systems were always coming ang going with each expansion, from artifact weapons to legendaries, to artifact power to conduits. These wheels of grind had always stuck out the expansion and then disappeared to be replaced with something else to fill the void left behind after losing the power you had supposedly borrowed. 

Although the never-ending cycle of borrowed power systems was frustrating, there were some other systems that were well received but these too never made it out of their expansion, systems Mike mentioned he would have loved to have seen iterated on, going with us into the future. Class Halls were a brilliant idea but they were forgotten as soon as the expansion was over, the garrison that took so much of our time in WoD was redundant as soon as we left Draenor. Mike wanted to know why. Were these seen as failures?

This is where Ion informed us about the modular system WoW had been using. It added systems designed to last only for an expansion, worried about bloating the game with system upon system. They would add systems and then take them away the next expansion, with something else designed to fill the gap, to carry that expansion forward.

Class halls turned into the Garrisons and they kept taking parts of their previous systems forward and scrapping the leftovers, making redundant systems leaving players unfulfilled and frustrated.

Ion explained that Dragonflight sought to usher in a new era. The era of evergreen systems designed to evolve with the game, lasting years into the future. The crafting system is a good example of this, they want to see the crafting system succeed and be with us for years to come.
They were going to embrace Evergreen content.

What Went Wrong

With mandatory cycles and borrowed power, it seemed that Blizzard’s house of cards was perilously close to collapse over the past few years, and the WoW team noticed that. They were getting the feedback from unhappy players and realized they were missing something big. The goal of the wow team has always been to create a world that players want to spend time in, Ion explained. “Its the passion that drives all of us, and we were failing”.

Then the allegations against Blizzard emerged, and they described awful treatment faced by employees. Ion couldn’t tell us much as the issues are still on-going. The allegations gave rise to an ongoing period of self-reflection says Ion. They looked inward to their culture and history, and looked at how they can change their processes, develop a culture of feedback and listening and trust that ensures even the slightest hint of impropriety is raised and dealt with.

Looking to The Future

 It seems like the WoW team were really trying to listen to player feedback and look to the future of the game. They tested out a new way of doing things with Zereth Mortis. Intentionally trying to make the 2nd legendary accessible in the first few weeks so that if you didn’t like the content of the zone afterwards you could leave it if thats what you wanted.

 They also wanted to bring the individual to the forefront once again. They felt like social gameplay has been lost over the years and they want to bring that feeling back, when professions felt meaningful and were a part of your identity. Mike called them the Samwell Tarly. They don’t want to be the warriors or fighters, but they want to support their guild in a role that is equally as important.

 Ion admitted the team were stubbornly trying to stick to old ideas, they wanted everything to be integrated to stop people from raid logging, but they came to the realization that if they weren’t making their players happy, what was the point in any of it?

 “Our goal is not to make you log in, its to make you want to log in”

The team turned over the ideas of the past, the philosophies that worked for MMOs 15 years ago weren’t making the players of today happy, rules regarding what should and shouldn’t be account bound, the importance of investment into your character. They reexamined everything players had asked for that they had outright said no to, and they double and triple checked to see that they still believe they were doing the right thing in not implementing it, and they made some changes.

The professions trying to make the individual important again is a good example, but also Dragonflying. This is the first time since Mists of Pandaria where you could fly in the new zones at launch. They’ve backed away from pathfinder and embraced flying in the Dragon isles.

The vibe of the whole expansion is a breath of fresh air to Ion. Wide open spaces, a return to Azeroth and exploration. Looking out on rolling plains and thinking of the land that is yours to explore.

To see the full interview with Ion head on over to the premium section of our website!

You can see both of our Blizzard HQ videos on our Youtube Channel!

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